Listening to the early solo career of Scott Walker with the benefit of hindsight, with full knowledge of the artist he has since become, presents a real challenge. How is it possible now to hear this vivid, theatrical music in its own context? The temptation to pinpoint the precursors of his more recent avant-garde techniques is never far away. There are the menacing spectral strings that both usher in and conclude Such A Small Love, and then the “bloated belching figure” of “the man upstairs” in Montague Terrace (In Blue) might even hint as far ahead as the crude viscera and flatulence displayed proudly on last year’s Bish Bosch (and that’s before we even consider the horrors of Next from Scott 2).
Perhaps this teleological approach is not entirely misleading, however. As early as 1968, Walker isolated himself in an intense period of study of contemporary and classical music, also immersing himself in the traditions of Gregorian chants. In his sleevenotes for Scott 2 (1968), the now disgraced, but clearly then perceptive Jonathan King pinpointed Walker’s restlessness and dissatisfaction and his continual desire to start the “serious business”. It seems that during the initial blossoming of his solo career, Walker produced some high-minded work that also drew on popular tropes and approaches, drawing together threads from a variety of musical forms to create something distinctive, and sometimes unnerving.
Although he founded his career on that extraordinary, vibrato-enhanced baritone singing lavish, lush orchestral ballads and his handsome image, Walker clearly never felt satisfied with being part of the mainstream and, with some irony, his greatest commercial failures came when he tried to force himself back into the confines of the easily marketable. Scott: The Collection makes the intriguing editorial decision to collate together his first five albums. The fifth of these, ‘Til The Band Comes In, has been quite hard to track down on CD in the UK, and is often seen as the turning point towards what Walker himself has called his “wilderness years” of artistic and commercial decline. It’s certainly one of his most consciously divided works, presenting a straightforward dichotomy between self-penned works and interpretations that feels uncomfortable and awkward, even though it contains some memorable gems more than worthy of re-assessment.
Before we get there, however, there are the four solo albums of sometimes wild, romantic, occasionally dark and apocalyptic songs, through which Walker demonstrates an increasing tendency for both authorship and authority. The first two albums combine a small cluster of his already excellent compositions with show and film tunes, covers of Jackie Trent and Tim Hardin and, of course, the songs of Jacques Brel. This material emphasises the young Scott Walker’s sense of drama and theatre, but also his burgeoning fearlessness and artistry.
Walker’s 1967 solo debut, appearing with impressive speed and whilst Walker was still just 23, begins with the exhilarating rush of Mathilde, on which Walker comes across as an anti-Roy Orbison. It begins with feverish intensity, yet Walker still manages to find an additional gear to match the outwardly expanding orchestration. It’s a performance not just full of vitality and colour, but bursting with awe and wonder. It is like a flipside to Orbison’s It’s Over (with its extravagant pain and hurt), a headlong tumble into an exciting new world.
Almost immediately though, what follows is surprising and ambiguous. Montague Terrace (In Blue) remains one of Walker’s most impressive songs, veering between stark, almost malevolent verses and expansive, ecstatic choruses. Both the arrangement and performance are wildly ambitious, but in a way that could hardly be further from the summer of love psychedelic experiments that still characterise the music of this year for many people.
The rest of the album contains some judicious song selections (Hardin’s The Lady Came From Baltimore, Andre and Dory Previn’s You’re Gonna Hear From Me, Brel’s My Death and Mann and Weil’s Angelica are all major parts of Walker’s early solo canon). But in Such A Small Love and Always Coming Back To You, it also included important glimpses of Walker’s compositional imagination.
1968‘s Scott 2, although a huge Number 1 chart success in the UK, might be the most uneven of the four albums. It is a bolder, more provocative album on which Walker really begins to shed his thinly veiled disguise. It of course includes Walker’s manic, gleeful, galloping romp through Brel’s notorious Jackie, a popular song banned by the BBC at the time for its mischievous lines (“authentic queers and phony virgins”). This sardonic rush through the delights and trappings of stardom still seem potent and relevant to modern celebrity culture.
It also contains a big bright triumph in the form of Plastic Palace People, its alliterative title indicative of the playfulness and lightness of touch in the music. The half spoken words and rich orchestrations must surely have been an influence on the quirky, delightful and, at the time, cruelly ignored songs of Bill Fay. But even in 1968, Walker’s restlessness meant he could hardly be comfortable with one idea. Plastic Palace People presents its audience with fractured, ungainly tempo changes, shifts in style and delivery and stark contrasts in orchestration and texture, devices he would later push to radical extremes.
There’s more mirth and detached, sardonic adventure in The Amorous Humphrey Plugg and, even accounting for his more untamed recent output, Next remains one of Brel’s strangest, more unsettling songs (veering from high camp military march to invocations of sheer terror). Walker’s take feels a little uncertain and tentative – one foot might be touching the dark side, but at this point Walker had yet to make the full imaginative leap. Some of his interpretations are not quite so assured here too. The take on Hardin’s Black Sheep Boy, a mercilessly concise and vulnerable statement in its original form, feels a little overcooked, its message diluted rather than enhanced by the syrupy excess. A Bacharach and David selection, though beautifully arranged, looks back to the approaches of The Walker Brothers rather than pushing further forward.
There is, however, The Bridge, one of Walker’s purest and most direct original compositions. Even here though, Walker’s serene contemplation of Madelaine is punctured by “wine and piss and death desire”, a moment of stark lyrical aggression very much marking him out from any of his immediate contemporaries. Fascinatingly, whereas most Walker albums ended with some kind of parting or kiss-off (If You Go Away, Rhymes Of Goodbye), Scott 2 ended with a powerful reading of Come Next Spring, looking positively to a new future.
On the following year’s Scott 3, sequencing appears to be everything. There are three Brel interpretations, but they are clustered together right at the end of the album’s second side. Preceding them are 10 Walker originals, not only the highest number of self-penned tracks on any of Walker’s recordings thus far, but also sequenced consecutively. This gave the audience little in the way of familiarity or breathing space – surely a very confident move at the time.
Whilst Scott 4 has retrospectively been established as Walker’s solo masterpiece, Scott 3 also has a very strong claim to greatness. Although Wally Stott’s arrangements remained lavish and crucial to the impact of the music, Scott 3 also developed a new subtlety and restraint. The music is often softer and less rhythmically driven (although the insistent march of We Came Through plays more to type) and there are some delicate, unusual touches. The constant, creaking dissonant strings that underpin It’s Raining Today seem to prefigure a darker, more menacing future. Where once Walker’s vocal delivery would have taken flight for an imposing chorus, he controls his dynamics and restricts his range here to quietly chilling effect. The story of an ageing transvestite on Big Louise is delivered with real tenderness, where once Walker would have tipped into camp or kitsch.
Scott 3 is an album of great empathy and understanding – featuring songs that brilliantly capture feelings of loss and regret. Even today, it feels like Walker’s first completely honest recording, largely dispensing with artifice in approaching something meaningful and captivating. In It’s Raining Today, Two Ragged Soliders, Copenhagen, Big Louise and 30 Century Man, it includes five of his very finest songs.
Contrary to its title, Scott 4 might actually be considered Walker’s fifth album, given that it followed a collection of songs from Walker’s TV series, a lightweight offering that Walker has now seemingly disowned. Originally credited to Walker’s real name of Noel Scott Engel, Scott 4 appeared to be an attempt to shed the edifice of performance and persona in the further search of something more meaningful and personal.
Its reputation for commercial failure rather precedes it – it actually contains moments of relative openness and accessibility. The Seventh Seal, Bergman by way of Morricone, makes for a compelling opener, its portentous narrative somewhat offset by a memorable melody and brisk, exciting arrangement (albeit one considerably subtler than the theatrical, grandiose marches of the first two solo albums). That being said, there is also much of the coldness, fearlessness in the face of evil (The Old Man’s Back Again) and austerity that would become trademarks of Walker’s later work.
One of the revisionist achievements of this collection is to restore ‘Til The Band Comes In, a much derided album and perhaps the start of Walker’s artistic decline, to some sort of kinship with his first four albums. Without proudly wearing the artist’s first name as a badge, ‘Til The Band Comes In also saw Scott retreating a little, ceding some control back to the managers and manipulators who failed to understand the extent of his solipsistic artistry. Strangely, even the Walker originals are co-credited to his then manager Ady Semel.
Once again, Til The Band Comes In re-emerges preceded by its reputation. It is roundly dismissed in Pulp’s Bad Cover Version, a track Walker himself produced. At least in part, this is unfair. For sure, it is a retreat into safer territory, but amongst its originals, it has moments of wondrous, expansive opulence (Thanks For Chicago, Mr James is exquisite) and of perfectly judged melancholy (the title track). Even its more modest moments, such as the gently swinging Joe, have a certain charm.
Taken on their own merits, even the covers have a peculiar charm. The Hills Of Yesterday is delivered with tender control, whilst What Are You Doing With The Rest Of Your Life may be syrupy, but in Walker’s hands seems oddly menacing (“I only have one request for the rest of your life and that is that you spend it all with me”). Reuben James is awkward, however, an upbeat country tune on which Walker sounds uncomfortable, and a sad harbinger of much of the rest of the ’70s, during which Walker reluctantly tackled movie themes and hoary standards.
And here once again, there are some striking portents of later darkness. “There’s no-one left alive to call me Joe” Walker sings, prefiguing that harrowing moment on Jesse from The Drift (“I’m the only one left alive”). Whilst it sounds breezy and positive, Little Things (That Keep Us Together) details a background litany of horrible news. With all these albums now packaged together, it’s harder than ever to avoid that teleological approach. Walker’s solo work, even at its most accessible, always seemed full of conflicts, dichotomies and tensions.
Scott Walker – Scott: The Collection 1967-1970 is out through Mercury 0n 3 June 2013.